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Drugs, other risks ruled out at Ill. prison where dozens got sick

Testing ruled out “narcotics or hazardous materials” as the cause for the illnesses

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By John O’Connor
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Testing to determine the reason two dozen employees at a state prison this week needed medical treatment for dizziness, nausea and vomiting this week has ruled out “narcotics or hazardous materials,” an official said Thursday.

An Illinois State Police hazardous materials team responded Wednesday afternoon to Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, 65 miles (105 kilometers) northeast of St. Louis after staff members responding to an inmate “medical incident” were sickened, according to Department of Corrections spokesperson Naomi Puzzello.

State police retrieved two substances found at the site, a nasal spray and powder, Puzzello said.

“The substances were identified as nonhazardous” Puzzello said, and didn’t require hospitalization or a call for emergency responders to bring naloxone hydrochloride, a prescription drug that acts to reverse an opioid overdose.

“IDOC works diligently to ensure the safety of both incarcerated individuals and employees and worked swiftly to ensure everyone had access to the care they requested,” she said.

But a spokesperson for union representing prison employees said further investigation is vital to explain the symptoms the employees suffered. Anders Lindall of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 also said the Corrections Department should prepare to have answers more rapidly in such cases.

Despite Puzzello’s assurances, chemicals identified in substances taken from the prison can irritate respiratory functions, along with contributing to other problems.

Preliminary tests found that the nasal spray contained acetaminophen, Puzzello said. It is a common pain reliever which may cause drowsiness and dizziness.

The powder was common baby powder containing aluminum phosphate, which is also used in dental cements, cosmetics, paints, paper and pharmaceuticals. It can irritate the nose, throat and lungs.

The powder also contained ethylpyrrole, which the U.S. Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration labels as a hazard to the respiratory system.

And it had benzene, which is harmful to the eyes, skin, airway, nervous system and lungs, according to OSHA.

Puzzello, who has not responded to requests to answer questions from The Associated Press, did not say in what quantities the compounds were found. She has not specified how many inmates were involved, where in the prison they were or what signs they were exhibiting which caught a prison staff member’s attention.

State police testing on clothing continued Thursday, but Puzzello did not say whose clothing.

In addition to the inmates, whom Puzzello says are in the prison’s health care unit, 22 staff members were treated at four area hospitals, Lindall said.

Lindall warned that “potent, dangerous synthetic compounds” are appearing more frequently in local communities and finding their way into prisons.

“IDOC must do more to prevent and prepare for the next such incident that may not be a false alarm,” Lindall said. “For just one example, steps must be taken to better equip facilities to identify substances in a much shorter timeframe.”

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